Maryland Woman Sues Volunteer Fire Company For Not Voting Her In

A Maryland woman has filed a discrimination suit against a volunteer fire company alleging she was discriminated against because she was rejected three times by the membership.

Jaunita Nelson filed suit in Federal District Court in Maryland against the Crisfield Fire Department claiming that the department excluded her because of her gender. Nelson seeks $3 million in compensatory damages, plus $1.5 million in punitive damages.

Cases like Nelson’s have not had much luck in the past, having to overcome two issues:

1.  Whether a volunteer company is a public actor (which triggers potential constitutional issues and §§ 1981 and 1983 claims), or a private association

2.  Whether or not a volunteer is an employee and thereby subject to Title VII and state law equivalent employment practices acts.

Nelson also sued the city of Crisfield, obviously hoping that by connecting the city to the volunteer fire department, she can sidestep both issues. To prevail against the city, the court would have to conclude that the Crisfield Fire Department is, in essence, an agent for the city.

In Fire Officer’s Legal Handbook, I use the case of Collins and White v. City of Fort Calhoun,  243 Neb. 528, 500 N.W.2d 822 (Neb., 1993), where two female applicants to a volunteer fire company sued the department and the city because the membership refused to voted them in. The Supreme Court of Nebraska ruled that volunteer firefighters are not employees of the city NOR employees of the volunteer fire company for purposes of employment discrimination laws. Thus neither the department nor the city can be held liable for the vote that excluded the two female applicants. A number of Federal courts follow the same reasoning.

Nelson, who is active in emergency resonse activities in Crisfield serving with the Lower Somerset County Ambulance and Rescue Squad, also sued three Crisfield members Ronnie Hinman, Larry Tyler and Charles Cavanaugh. She probably figured she wouldn’t have gotten their votes next time anyway!

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • DJ

    Crisfield is an old boys club always has and always will be. Shes probably dead right about the discrimination but good luck proving it or for that matter winning.

  • Lizard

    What were their reasons, if any, for turning her down? Does anyone have anymore details or background information?

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